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Setting in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was first published in 1985, is one of the most controversial dystopian novels. The key themes that are discussed by the author in her work include social inequality between men and women, power, oppression, gender roles, freedoms, and rights among others. The complex discussion of these themes is realized in a specific set of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime based on extreme Christian ideas that replaced the government of the United States (Atwood 20). Although most researchers focus on analyzing the key themes in the novel, its setting is of great importance because particular features of the futuristic highly hierarchical society in Gilead influence the nature of depicted events.

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In the novel, the setting is described by Offred, the main character, who tells her story of being a handmaid in Gilead, where fertile women have to give birth to children for high-ranking individuals. Offred describes the streets of her city, which is located in the former neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, without any emotion, but she accentuates its beauty. Thus, “the lawns are tidy, the facades are gracious … they’re like the beautiful pictures … The street is almost like a museum or a street in a model town … This is the heart of Gilead” (Atwood 23). In this city of the future, there are no children in the streets “as in those pictures, those museums, those model towns” (Atwood 23). This description of the neighborhoods of Gilead accentuates that people living there are deprived of the joy of having children and being free; they are not models in an ideal town.

The other important setting for understanding Offred’s story is the house of the Commander, for whom the woman has to serve as a handmaid. Offred lives with the family of the Commander to become pregnant. In spite of attractive surroundings, including their apartments or streets, both seem to feel like slaves in Gilead because even the Commander needs to hide playing a game or reading books and magazines. Once, the Commander invites Offred to join him: “I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says … So that’s what’s in the forbidden room! Scrabble!” (Atwood 138). From this perspective, the relationships of Offred with the Commander, and then Nick, develop in spite of the necessity of hiding them in the society of Gilead.

People are able to live a life that can slightly resemble their past routines only when they are not seen. However, it is also important to note that being invisible in this totalitarian state is almost impossible because “The Republic of Gilead … knows no bounds. Gilead is within you” (Atwood 23). Thus, the settings of a puritan society create many challenges for not only suppressed women but also men. In this environment, both women and men seem not to belong to each other, but they are the property of the regime and rule. The problem is that these people know that their past was different.

The past and present times, as well as places and surroundings, are discussed as contrasting and opposing each other. In the past, the citizens of Gilead lived in a democratic country. The university in the described neighborhood was prosperous, and women had the right to obtain an education, but a certain catastrophe made everything change (Christou 415). In the past, people belonged to their community, but it did not affect their independence and free will. According to Atwood, to replace the realities of a democratic society, it was necessary to move people of the future to their archaic past: “A return to traditional values” (7). The described ascetic room of Offred is a typical surrounding for women of her class, which is not much opposed to the apartments of other citizens, but to their predecessors.

On the one hand, nothing was significantly changed in the streets in terms of architecture or landscapes. The same monumental buildings surround people in the streets, but their life changed dramatically after the revolution conducted by the Sons of Jacob. The society became hierarchal and totalitarian in its nature, and militarization, violence, injustice, and oppression became its main features (Atwood 44). In this context, Gilead is not just a regime or a setting for citizens’ life but it is a way of living for them, and it works like a prison. From this perspective, the pictures of a dark Gilead of the future, where there are no children in the streets and laugh, are opposed to the pictures of people’s past which they can remember. In the past, it was possible to read or just play games with family members and friends.

Thus, referring to the provided analysis of the setting in The Handmaid’s Tale, it is possible to emphasize the significance of this literary element in the novel. Atwood uses detailed descriptions of the streets and apartments in order to accentuate the difference in people’s lives in comparison to their past. These dark and ascetic surroundings serve as vivid backgrounds for representing the details of the regime of Gilead (Atwood 21-45). Without the author’s focus on settings, it is almost impossible to imagine the described realities and realize changes in society.

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In this context, the particular place that effectively accentuates the role of the setting in the novel is the Harvard area in Cambridge. Placing the events of the novel in these surroundings associated with education and even enlightenment, the author puts an emphasis on the risks and consequences of following ideas associated with Puritanism, intolerance, and prejudice. Therefore, it is possible to assume that the location of the described city has a special meaning in the novel (Christou 412). The reason is that the author accentuates what downfall of morality and justice can be observed in this remarkable area when the problem is in the development of a totalitarian and radical society.

Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a complex work, and its analysis can be complete only by focusing on the role of a setting in this novel. In spite of scholars’ interest in discussing the details of the themes presented in the piece, its setting requires careful examination. The setting is highly important for understanding the message of the author because time and place play a critical role in explaining the specifics of events. It is almost impossible to understand the concerns of Offred as well as other female characters in The Handmaid’s Tale without referring to the background of Gilead. Offred’s emotionless but significant descriptions of the setting provide a reader with a full picture.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.

Christou, Maria. “A Politics of Auto-Cannibalism: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” Literature and Theology, vol. 30, no. 4, 2016, pp. 410-425.

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